By Donella Meadows
–March 26, 1992–
Far more important than Congressional rubber checks, Bill Clinton’s love affairs, or even a middle class tax cut, is an event that few reporters are following, though it is happening in the media capital of the United States. PrepCom IV, the fourth and final negotiating session for the Earth Summit, is going on now at United Nations headquarters in New York.
Delegations from 170 governments are hammering out an Earth Charter — a statement of guiding principles for how human beings can meet their own needs and ensure their childrens’ ability to meet their needs on a finite earth. The delegates are being helped and hassled in their effort by over 1000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ranging from the Sierra Club to the Association of African Midwives.
Drafting the Earth Charter is a popular activity. The world’s governments like high-minded words. Among the Charter’s principles are: “The Earth, with its diverse life forms, is a functioning whole. We have the inescapable obligation to respect all life and Earth’s ecosystems.” And: “Regardless of diverse expressions, languages, and cultures, humanity is one. Individuals, peoples, and nations must act in partnership to ensure the integrity and health of the planet.”
Those ideas should set the stage for inspired negotiation, but when it comes to the Earth Summit policy statement, called “Agenda 21,” all the U.N.’s multicultural melodrama breaks out. The rich nations are telling the poor to stop having so many babies and to pay their debts. The poor nations are telling the rich to stop being wasteful and to help them develop.
There are plenty of people in both government and NGO camps who can rise above this fruitless finger-pointing. But agreements on global warming, ocean pollution, air pollution that crosses national boundaries, and protection of endangered species are being reached only slowly and painfully, though PrepCom IV is scheduled to end on April 3. The Earth Summit, where Agenda 21 is to be signed by the world’s heads of state, begins in Rio de Janeiro on June 1. There is enormous pressure to come to closure.
Across the street from U.N. headquarters is the Church Center for the United Nations, which serves as lobbying station for many NGOs. The place is jumping with strategy meetings, caucuses, and people typing out position papers on the points of view of women, of indigenous groups, of island nations, of students, of solar energy enthusiasts, and so forth. Each floor is as busy as Clinton campaign headquarters on the night before a primary vote, but the skin colors, languages, and costumes represent the whole world. Here is a real rainbow coalition.
On the 12th floor of the Church Center three energetic young people monitor all the negotiations and put out a daily summary, the “Earth Summit Bulletin.” As opposed to the official, diplomatic U.N. publications, the Bulletin is brief, pointed, and irreverent. Here are some excerpts:
FINANCIAL RESOURCES: If Vice-Chair John Bell is not successful in crafting a compromise document, look for a repeat of the procedural morass that mired the Earth Charter proceedings last week.
OCEANS: There is a possibility that New Zealand will make a new proposal concerning whales and small cetaceans. Other issues that must be resolved include high seas fisheries and Antarctica.
EARTH CHARTER: Watch for northern countries to raise their concerns about the “over-emphasis” of development issues. Watch for signs of the U.S. attempting to press for the Earth Charter to be treated as a preamble to Agenda 21 rather than as a separate instrument.
IN THE CORRIDORS: It is believed that the United States is planning to propose the elimination of the entire Consumption chapter at Thursday’s Plenary on the poverty cluster. Apparently this decision was discussed at the highest political levels in Washington.
As these samples indicate, the United States is generally acting as an obstacle to negotiation. Our delegates, representing five percent of the world’s people, who produce 25 percent of the world’s pollution, have apparently been instructed from the White House to see that little or nothing comes of the Earth Summit.
The U.S. has scuttled a forestry agreement that might have required us to treat our Pacific forests the way we want the Brazilians to treat their rainforest. We are the only industrialized nation that refuses to set a schedule for reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. We are opposing a ban on ocean dumping of radioactive wastes, we are resisting safeguards against traffic in hazardous wastes, we are objecting to mechanisms that would help Third World nations adopt pollution control technologies. Above all, we do not permit any talk about our own consumption habits.
One NGO summarizes the U.S. position as, “less action is better … let some other forum deal with it … let the free market resolve it … let’s study the problem more .. (and even) what’s the problem?” Our government is undermining the extraordinary opportunity of the Earth Summit. Says one observer, “the perception among other delegates that the United States will block creative ideas has stifled constructive proposals from even being presented.” In the corridors of PrepCom IV George Bush is not seen as an environmental president, or even as a president with international skills or understanding.
Fortunately, most other governments are more informed about the world’s interconnectedness, more generous, and more ready for the 21st Century than ours is. On both the official and the unofficial sides of the street in New York, ideas are being shared, coalitions are being built, policies are being forged that will shape the world long after Rio. More and more people, everywhere on earth, are beginning to understand and live by the principles that will soon be embodied in the Earth Charter. “We have the inescapable obligation to respect all life and Earth’s ecosystems. Individuals, peoples, and nations must act in partnership to ensure the integrity and health of the planet.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992